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Playing with point of view

“Playing with point of view is the most instructive thing a writer can do.” Stevan Allred, co-teacher with Joanna Rose at The Pinewood Table in Portland, Oregon, and author of A Simplified Map of the Real World, a collection of linked short stories.

Common wisdom about writing says that point of view is the most important choice a writer makes. That made perfect sense to me, but I assumed that once you chose your POV, it was fixed.

I wrote a nonfiction narrative about being diagnosed with MS. At the table, the response was reasonably positive for first draft. I revised, tinkered, brought it back. Something wasn't working. One morning, I woke up thinking the POV should be you. I'd never written in second person, thought of it as gimmicky, but the piece rewrote itself. Reading it out loud at the table, I heard the way the you drew the reader in, distanced my experience from me in a way that first person can't, made it an experience that could happen to you.

I still didn't get the message about playing with POV. I restructured paragraphs, chopped or rewrote sentences, looked for different words. I deleted little darlings. The POV stayed the same.

Another story, told in close third person, wasn't working. Stevan suggested choosing one of the minor characters as the narrator. From that change, the real story emerged, a different, more interesting, more complex story than the one I thought I was telling. The original story had been kicking around for so many years that it was first typed on my Smith-Corona. Now the new story is home.

Traditionally short stories are written from one POV, but contemporary authors are breaking that rule. I'm working on a story that is set in two different time periods, 1926 and 1962, with multiple viewpoints. I've tried giving every major character a voice in an effort to find the right combination. One night at the table, Stevan suggested trying an omniscient POV.

The next morning, I sat at my laptop, page blank, and could not hear a voice. I couldn't write in the voice of god, my version of omniscience, a vision that translates into a supremely distanced narrator. I associated this voice with early novels rather than contemporary fiction. I heard the voice of a narrator who was smug in knowledge of every character's heart and directed the reader, even addressed the reader.

I started writing sentences in third person about one of the main characters arriving in Blair, Nebraska, by train in 1926. At first the sentences seemed to have no voice. But as I kept writing, the words and sentences took on a tone. The sentences had a particular rhythm. When I reread what I'd written the next morning, I heard a voice, the voice of the town of Blair telling a story about the arrival of a stranger. Blair became a storyteller, the town's memory, as well as one of the points of view.

If you want to read a discussion of POV, get a copy of Janet Burroway's book Writing Fiction, A Guide to Narrative Craft and read the chapters “Call Me Ishmael: Point of View, Part I” and “Assorted Liars, Point of View, Part II.” Then read Stevan Allred's amazing collection of short stories and study what happens when a writer plays with point of view until each story comes home.

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